World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you’ve never read a zombie apocalypse novel, World War Z is the one to read.
The above statement can be considered a little biased since this is the first zombie apocalypse book I’ve read. It’s also maybe a little unfair considering there hasn’t been a huge amount of zombie literature prior to the new millennium (likely the reason why this is the first zombie apocalypse book I’ve read). If the list on Wikipedia is accurate and up-to-date, it appears zombie literature has increased since the new millennium began. There weren’t a lot of contenders for “Best Zombie Apocalypse Novel” prior to the publication of World War Z (Note: I’m not including the various Resident Evil novels because the series didn’t start out from a novel, but are based on the first video game of the same name; Resident Evil also consists of a series of movies. It’s also a little unfair to compare one small book to a whole series about a zombie apocalypse, especially a series as popular as Resident Evil.)
In contrast, there has been a significant amount of zombie films prior to the new millennium. (See “List of zombie films”.) Probably the most influential movies on that list are Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, both written and directed by George A. Romero. Of the two movies, Dawn of the Dead more directly shows the apocalyptic effects of a zombie outbreak. Would it be fair to judge Brooks’ novel against a movie? Perhaps. In fact, Brooks was inspired by George A. Romero’s works (as indicated in Brooks’ “Acknowledgments”: “a final thank-you to… and, of course, the genius and terror of George A. Romero”)
World War Z is written from the perspective that the zombie apocalypse has already happened. That we survived the apocalypse is certain from the very beginning of the book. How did we survive though? What were the key factors that brought about the survival of humanity? Most importantly, what are the feelings of those who survived? In order to answer these questions, Brooks decided that the best way to achieve this was to have each of the various survivors narrate their stories. The format of the novel is not a straight narrative from only one or a few persons. The format of the novel is a compilation of stories, with a little introduction from the person who compiled the stories. The identity of the compiler is never revealed. It’s only revealed that the compiler worked for the “United Nations Postwar Commission Report”, perhaps as an investigator. This is intentional though. Since the novel is written from the perspective that the zombie apocalypse already happened and that the most important stories are those of the survivors, there is no need for the reader to know more about the compiler of the stories. As written in the chapter, “Introduction”:
This is their book, not mine, and I have tried to maintain as invisible a presence as possible… I have attempted to reserve judgment, or commentary of any kind, and if there is a human factor that should be removed, let it be my own.
Since the compiler could not have the bulk of the survivors stories in the report’s final edition, a separate book was published where he did not have to remove the “human factor” in the survivors’ narratives.
The compilation of the narratives was then divided into sections, which are essentially the chapters in the novel. Thus, the novel starts with “Introduction” followed by “Warnings” and ending with “Good-byes”. “Introduction” gives the reader a bit of background into the compiler of the narratives as mentioned above, but also serves to give the reader a bit of background to the world after the zombie apocalypse. The chapters “Warnings” through to “Good-byes” give the reader the flow of the overall narrative of the story. We first read about the beginnings, then the mass panic followed by narratives detailing how people resisted becoming one of the infected, and then how the apocalypse ended and humanity survived.
As for writing style, each survivors’ narrative is presented like a journal article with an introductory blurb placed before the narrative. The blurb introduces the survivor as well as gives some background to the narrative which follows it. The narratives are first person accounts of what the survivor experienced during the zombie apocalypse.
The format and writing style of World War Z may put off some readers, but frankly it works. It works well. In fact, each account reminds me of various human rights journal articles or accounts from people who have lived in some of the countries currently under strife. If you wanted to write a story and make the reader believe the events already happened, this is the format and style to take. Some may think it’d be hard to read a novel with too many narratives, but I found it quite easy to read from one narrative to the next. At the end of each narrative, I found myself wondering what the next account would be about.
This format for the novel also presents the reader with not just one story, but many smaller ones. You’ll read about a doctor in China, a soldier in Vermont, a computer geek in Japan, and various others. Each narrative isn’t random, however. Each narrative helps to explain the overall story and there are interconnecting threads between various narratives. Each individual story helps make up the whole.
While reading World War Z, I felt as if one had taken key pieces out of every other zombie story ever told as well as key pieces out of every apocalypse story every told. Brooks has thought through a lot of scenarios that someone may have to face in the event of an apocalypse or global war. He’s also thought about how various social groups might react. I felt that Brooks either did a lot of research or just knew much about different world cultures. For example, he describes the Japanese kami as well as the disparity between China’s city-folk and village-folk. Also, I thought Brooks described the political scenarios quite accurately.
Some may pick fault with Brooks for not having an explanation in the novel for the zombie outbreak, but I think this may be realistic. It takes a while to determine the origins of a disease. Some may recall when A.I.D.S. was first discovered. People were infected with a disease, but doctors didn’t know exactly why the people were being infected. “In the early days, the CDC did not have an official name for the disease, often referring to it by way of the diseases that were associated with it…” (See “HIV/AIDS”.) Later, it was called A.I.D.S. World War Z is less about providing an explanation for zombies, but more about the human spirit to survive.
To sum up World War Z, I’d say it has heart, brains, and brawn – all of which are required for humanity to survive.
(Note: Some readers may be wondering, so I thought I’d address this now. Yes, I read this book before watching the movie version. In fact, this book has been lying on my bookshelf for a good while before the movie was announced. When it comes to movies based on books, I prefer to read the book first because I like to know what the original creator of the story intended. After, I will review a movie based on other factors than for a book. This is simply because movies and books while both intending on telling a story do so in different ways. They are different mediums, and therefore have different techniques and methods for telling a story and for being artistic. That being said, I did watch World War Z and the jury is still out. There’s supposed to be a sequel later, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in it.)
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